Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good and Evil in Art

Let's go beyond that. Let's include all human creativity-music, writing, film, sculpture, painting, dance-everything. I am no hip-hop devotee. I can't discuss rap's current state. Rap music gets blamed for many issues: out of wedlock births, tattoos, "rape culture", acceptance of public profanity, etc.
But rap isn't the first art form to be condemned for vulgarity or anti-social behavior. The people who gleefully sang "I love to play the piano so baby let me bang your box" or "Big Ten Inch" or "That big long sliding thing" weren't rappers. What do people think of "bad thoughts/actions" in other art forms?
  • Do you care that Louis Armstrong appeared in blackface?
  • The rock group Queen toured Apartheid era Sun City.
  • Rock icon Elvis Costello once called Ray Charles a "blind ignorant n*****" and made similar comments about James Brown.
  • Roman Polanski is a pedophile rapist. Polanski is also among the greatest directors of our time. 
  • Some consider The St. John Passion by J.S. Bach to be anti-semitic.
  • Richard Wagner was anti-semitic. He wrote excellent classical music.
  • Leni Riefenstahl never killed anyone. She turned a blind eye to anti-semitism and The Holocaust while cavorting with Nazi officials to advance her career. She too was a film director who greatly improved her chosen field. Triumph of the Will is a (malevolent) masterpiece.
  • The Rolling Stones generally paid proper royalties and gave credit to their black influences. They refused to play apartheid South Africa. They also wrote songs in which they sang "Scarred old slaver know he's doing all right/Hear him whip the women just around midnight" or "Black girls just want to get ***** all night".
  • As much as anyone not named Chuck Berry, Ike Turner was a rock-n-roll founding father. He had a negative relationship with his wife.
  • James Brown allegedly abused his wives and girlfriends. He wasn't above physically abusing his band members, man or woman. Per Fred Wesley, Brown once pistol-whipped Jimmy Nolen.
  • Norman Mailer beat and stabbed his wife. He was a giant of 20th century writing.
  • Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin wrote great music. He also stole a lot of music and spent much of the seventies addicted to heroin and sleeping with 13 yr-old groupies. 
  • Does it bother you that the Detroit NAACP gave an award to Kid Rock, who uses the Confederate Flag in his shows?
  • Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were among the 20th century's greatest fantasy and horror writers, respectively. Both influenced other writers and continue to do so today, some 80 years after their deaths. Both were proud white supremacists, who even for that time (1920's-1930's) stood out for their contempt of non-whites, especially black people. Lovecraft's racism is almost inseparable from his writing.
  • William Burroughs killed his wife and said this made him a writer.
  • Sunshine of Your Love has one of the greatest rock riffs. Eric Clapton brought attention (and royalties) to black blues musicians. He's regularly hired black band members. He's befriended and worked with many different black musicians. Decades ago Clapton also infamously stated that non-whites needed to be forcibly removed from England. He's never retracted that either. In a December 2007 interview with Melvin Bragg, Clapton reiterated his support for Enoch Powell and again denied that Powell's views were racist.
"I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. F******g w***s, man. F****g Saudis taking over London. B****d w***s. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black w***s and c*** and Arabs and f******* Jamaicans and f****** (indecipherable) don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black w***s and c***s living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want f*****g w***s living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for f***'s sake? We need to vote for Enoch Powell, he’s a great man, speaking truth. Vote for Enoch, he’s our man, he’s on our side, he’ll look after us. I want all of you here to vote for Enoch, support him, he’s on our side. Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the ***** out! Keep Britain white!

I love you mate, but don't move next door, ok?
Despicable or problematic individuals can create great art.
Or can they?
This debate won't end. I believe that art must be judged on its aesthetic merits first and foremost. I once limited myself to art created by only those people that fit or at least didn't violate my basic political/moral standards. It wasn't sustainable. I had to accept that if I liked the art, I wouldn't care too much about the artist. But if I already knew the artist was a horrible person, I probably wouldn't investigate his/her work. It's not completely logical but it works for me. I can accept that bad people can create good art.
There are limits. You won't see me at a Lynyrd Sknyrd show anytime soon. But Simple Man is a good song. Is this hypocritical? Yes. But I think it's also completely human.
What do you think? Do you care about an artist's political views?
Do you enjoy work by people with whom you'd have a confrontation if you met them in real life? 
Did you ever enjoy some art and then find out that the creator was a real piece of .."work" ?
Did that change your viewpoint of the art?
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